Everyone’s talking about Devilman Crybaby. Not me, I only watch old garbage. This is yet another outing for Violence Jack. No, really. Let’s see, how to explain this… Well, I don’t actually know anything about Go Nagai’s fictional universe and I don’t really want to, but it’s something like Akira Fudo who fuses with the demon Amon to become Devilman is reborn as Violence Jack who is one third of Devilman or something and the other two parts of him are birds. That either sounds stupider than it is or doesn’t sound nearly stupid enough. Anyway, in the late ’80s (naturally) there were a couple of gory shitdub OVAs made of the Devilman saga and I thought I would check them out. I regret that decision, but since I went through with it I might as well get something vaguely redeeming out of it.
The Birth (1987)
Aptly titled, The Birth is about the birth of Devilman. A few million or whatever years before that happens, though, dinosaurs and fairies and crab monsters and weird plant things are at war with each other or something. Apparently some of them are possessed by demons, and we get what in the world of 1980’s anime shitdubs probably passed for an explanation of that a little later on, but for now let’s abruptly skip over to something else. In the present, some people go to a cave, and they die because there is a thing there. Spooky. After that we meet Akira Fudo, as yet not demonised, who is looking after rabbits. Some street punks kill the rabbits and beat Akira up. Now I know what you’re thinking, are these guys leather biker rapists? No, no they are not. Apparently Violence Jack’s world is what happens after Devilman kills or fails to kill Satan or something, and that’s when things really get bad, so these guys are a bit more tame—instead of chainsawing your head off while raping your girlfriend they just menace you with blunt objects and call you names. Okay, okay, yes, they kill animals, but they do that off-screen, which is basically the old school trash anime equivalent of being humane.
The first thing to note is that Akira, despite being a weakling, displays some kind of heroism in rescuing the third rabbit. While he does get the crap kicked out of him, he does indeed protect the rabbit, and the punks even admire his resolve on some level. This goes out the window pretty quickly when his buddy Ryo, who wears a cape for some reason and swears enough for a whole shipload of sailors, shows up out of nowhere. Thanks to the amazing English dub, Akira literally goes from a timid “oh no, who would do such a thing?” upon encountering the rabbits to growling “let’s take a swing at the motherfuckers!” when Ryo enlists him to fight demons, all in the space of about ten minutes. And they say kids grow up too fast these days! I’m skipping a bit of story here, though. Before the demons, we get a nice story with equally nice visuals about Ryo’s dad going insane and butchering the family dog before trying to kill Ryo and then setting himself on fire. Such is the power of demons, for Ryo’s dad was studying them and may have gotten, in a classic Lovecraftian kind of deal, just a little too close for his own good. At Ryo’s house, demons show up because his dad knew too much, and Ryo shows Akira a dead demon’s head, which Akira must put on his head in order to witness what basically amounts to the opening sequence but more detailed and even less intelligible.
With Akira thus fully convinced to take a swing at the motherfuckers, Ryo leads him to a nightclub that is for some reason inside his house and starts getting drunk and glassing dudes in the face. The point of this is to create a sabbath-like ritual of sex, intoxication, and blood, in order to attract demons. I will point out that earlier there were several demons inside his house, but I guess it doesn’t count unless you shout “fuckin’ hellfire!” and faceplant into a naked woman’s breasts. This is where things take a turn for the properly grotesque. Where Violence Jack is basically the Mad Max-style pulp/exploitation post-apocalypse taken to its logical extreme, revelling in dismemberment, rape, torture, and so forth, Devilman is a surreal phantasmagoria of body horror. While it would be a mistake to think of the OVA itself as anything other than Grade A trash, the sabbath sequence (at least before “I did it, I am Devilmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”, after which point it becomes high comedy) features legitimately impressive gruesomeness of a sort that might have amused someone like Dalí for the way it contorts and perverts natural forms. He died in 1989, so who knows, he could’ve seen it, maybe. Probably not but the idea is appealing, kind of, maybe? Guys?
The OVA ends with Akira holding an apparently dead Ryo in his arms and shouting “why God?!” over and over again. And, in a way, that kind of sums it up. As you’ll note I’ve written somewhat less about this one than the sequel, and that’s for a few reasons. First off, it’s pretty slow and most of the dialogue is only memorable because it’s so bad. Second of all, I saw this a few days ago, and now I’m giving my recollections. Thirdly, the sequel is much more fun to talk about.
The Demon Bird (1990)
Akira Fudo, no longer a fresh-faced youth but an angry man with fangs that no one seems to notice, is living with his lady friend (but not in that way) who was briefly (hey, the OVA forgot who she was and so did I) seen in The Birth before Ryo showed up to drive his swearing-powered car (someone give this idea to a wealthy entrepreneur who is not Elon Musk, stat!) to the demon mansion. No longer one to be bothered by street thugs, now he leaps tall buildings in a single bound! No really, he does, parkouring his way about Tokyo or wherever he’s supposed to be. He can also kind of Spider-Man his way up walls by thrusting his fingers into concrete because he’s just that tough. After receiving a strange phone call, he parkours over to a sewer tunnel where some bad shit is going down. Human skeletons and strange hallucinations and a woman laughing lead him to fall through a conveniently placed hole and into an abandoned subway station, where a floating skull talks to him with his mother’s voice, but I don’t know how he can tell, it sounds like the woman who voices the Dark Souls intro started smoking two packs of Bensons a day. Maybe his mother really did sound like that? Not that I expect any continuity between dubs here, and even if I did I probably wouldn’t go back and check.
Anyway, a lizard armadillo demon who speaks with a deep south American accent for some reason shows up with a bunch of pustule-ridden human faces. These are souls that the demon traps on its shell in order to enjoy their suffering. Regressing from Dark Souls to Demon’s Souls hahaha shut up. This demon’s name is Ginman? As in the spirit gin and, well, man? I’m sure the dub is screwing it up somehow, but I don’t really know. Also this is apparently the demon that got Parkoura’s parents because it was indeed his mother calling to him, her soul is trapped in Ginman’s shell. The horror in this section seems considerably lesser than that of the sabbath sequence of yore. It’s true that Ginman can withstand attacks on his shell, which means that more pain is suffered by the trapped souls, including potentially Mama Fudo, but somehow the overall tone and presentation feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything. After telepathically showing him her own body being destroyed, however, it gives him the gumption to get that there demon dead in a pretty anticlimactic fight. Of course, it is only a quarter of the way through, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by this.
After a brief visit with the decidedly not dead Ryo in the hospital, Akira goes to the beach—or does he?! No. No he does not. In fact it’s a pretty cool dream sequence which captures more of the subject matter’s potential for surreal, almost ghost train kind of imagery. If this “series”, such as it is, has a strength, this is it. If it had just been an hour of this kind of weird stuff each way then, despite its considerably lower budget, this could have been among the best of its era. Alas, it ain’t. Now seems as good a time as any, mid-paragraph (we’re really freewheeling now, baby) to talk about just how weird the dub is. All the voice actors are clearly American, but the script seems to have been written in England. If you’ve never heard the phrase “I’m knackered” being spoken with an American accent, this is your chance! It’s bizarre, any minute I expect one of the demons to say “cor blimey, it’s Akira Fudo, ouwight me ol’ china” or “chuffin’ ‘ell lad tha’s buggered that one”. I don’t know if this is in fact some bizarre attempt to make it seem foreign to American audiences while still being in English somehow, but I’m glad they did it, it keeps you on your toes.
Now, you might be wondering, just who or what in the heck that title is referring to. At first I thought it might be about the Violence Jack bird, it isn’t about that, thankfully, but there is indeed a demon bird. Sort of. It’s actually a naked woman with some avian features, and I guess if the Saturday morning kids’ show theme is what we’re going with, she’s Devilman‘s Rita Repulsa. She brings down a couple of demons from a thunder storm, who has some kind of light-based power that allows him to appear in mirrors or something, and there’s another one who is water? Is this a JoJo ref- No. Stop that right now. This is where we get another action sequence, and it’s a pretty weird one. The demons assault the house, Akira’s lady friend Miki (finally remembered!) is almost drowned in the bathtub, and her parents are phased into the architecture. The dub makes it kind of difficult to tell who is who, but as far as I can tell Gelmar is in fact the mirror and water demon (any reflective surface will do, it seems), and the other one is some kind of almost-snail with teeth and tentacles that speaks through a reverb effect that makes it impossible to tell what it’s saying. Reverb Snail is dispatched first, and then Akira uses his hot hands to set a bedsheet on fire which causes the water portion of Gelmar’s body to evaporate. I don’t really understand how the house isn’t a burning wreck but whatever.
Anyway, Akira kills Gelmar, and then the bird lady, whose name, according to the dub, is Shernu (hey, you want me to do research? pay me), swoops down and takes him for a ride. After Ryo, who is telepathic somehow, takes his swear-powered car and heads for a tall building, from which he shoots Shernu with a sniper rifle that he has because he does, things take a turn for the worse. The ensuing battle is kind of a tonal mess, jumping from spectacular explosions and gore to bloodless slapfights and back again. Things get even sillier when Shernu chants for Satan’s help, and the ever helpful Prince of Darkness sends a rhino demon who speaks like he’s doing a voice over for a coffee commercial down to Earth. There follows a conversation about whether or not Shernu should fuse with the rhino, and for some reason this is supposed to be an emotional moment even though we’ve never seen one of them before, and the one we have spent time with has spent that time doing nothing but shout “I’ll tear you limb from limb!” over and over again while getting punched in the face. It turns out that the rhino has been in love with the bird lady “since the dawn of time”, and in its ham-fisted way that makes no sense this is about as close as we get in this whole sordid affair to a romance. Anyway, the noble rhino rips his own head off and Shernu inserts herself feet first into the gaping neck hole, so I guess this is the closest we get to a sex scene as well, and by golly it was consensual! The power of love proves strong, and Devilman in fact loses the fight. Of course none of this actually matters because Shernu was about to die anyway, and Ryo shows up to put some bandages on Akira so everything is okay. Even the credits don’t think this is important, they just unceremoniously start up over Ryo and Akira’s conversation, and the dub credits even black out half the screen so that the whole thing ends with the kind of incoherence with which it began.
So that’s Devilman. The better part of two hours of people swearing at each other and dying in horrible ways. Of the Go Nagai adaptations I have seen it’s definitely the best, but given that the others comprise the Violence Jack trilogy, I’m going to go ahead and say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not all that great. It has moments where cool things happen, but then either the original direction or the atrocious dubbing completely ruins the effect. Taken as action horror it’s too goofy to take seriously, taken as a so-bad-it’s-good trainwreck it’s nowhere near shitty enough and most of the dub just isn’t that funny. But it has its moments of imagination, and for that I can’t really say it’s bad, it’s just very poorly balanced in its tone, with characters that are whatever they need to be for a particular scene, their traits being served up like a Woolworths’ pick ‘n’ mix rather than in accordance with any kind of developmental logic. It’s too all over the place in terms of quality to be mediocre, but it probably averages out to around that level. In conclusion, I guess you could say Devilman is a thing that exists.